Friday, 19 December 2014

Nazariah, the Christmas Angel and the Christmas Truce ...

Gordon Bennet! I'd really gone and done it. It was as close as I ever came to being cast out from the Heavenly Host. And the Boss? Well the Boss was madder than a hive of bees on smoke-out day.

You see I have a perennial problem. Each of us Angels has his own very specific job to do, and my brief as the Christmas Angel often leads me to trespass into territory that I don't have strict day-to-day jurisdiction over. But what can I say? I'm an enthusiast, and when I'm in the throes of getting things done it's not in my nature to come over all nit-picky about whether what needs to be done is strictly my department or not.

Even on the very first nativity I ended up getting it in the neck for messing about with the heavens, but if I hadn't sent that star who knows where the so-called Wise Men would have ended up. For crying out loud they'd already missed the main event! But that didn't stop the Boss from reading me the riot act because I'd not consulted Mazalel, the great big dreamer who's in charge of stars and celestial bodies. 



And time is never on my side. It's not like I can let things slip. There's a deadline, and if I miss it, well Christmas just won't happen. And let's face it, in any given year, that would be a catastrophe. The mortals down below need a little injection of seasonal cheer to keep the light of their humanity burning, and, in the dark year that was 1914, they needed it more than ever.



When the war broke out back in August I knew it was going to mess up my plans.  Wars always do. Light and fun and all the things that make you believe humanity can be redeemed go right out of the window. 

And then, to add to my woes, that infernal bighead, Azrael, the Angel of Death, started to lord it over the rest of us as though he were the only one who had a job to do. 

Death. Death. And more death. It's going to be death on an industrial scale, he'd told us self-importantly when it had started. Do you dolts have any idea how much work I'm going to have on whilst this little shindig plays out?

No, of course we hadn't. Not even us eternal beings, who've seen everything since before the beginning of time, could have imagined how awful it was going to be.

It'll all be over by Christmas, the Tommies said as they joined up and flooded across the Channel to rot in the trenches, but I knew it wouldn't. I'd seen the Plan in the Big Book up on the Executive Floor when I'd been handing in my time-sheets. The Plan sounded pretty terrible, but it was only words on paper and I hadn't had the vision to see how the blood would flow when those words played out for real. 


At first it didn't seem so bad. I mean it was miserable, but nothing compared to what it would become once both sides had dug in and knuckled down for the long haul. For the first few weeks Azrael and his minions were all a bit hangdog. There weren't that many souls for him to separate from their earthly bodies and carry home; he felt a bit short-changed.

I began to think that maybe, just maybe, Christmas 1914 would be business as usual for me. But then things changed, and the carnage began in earnest. We watched in disbelief. Mary, the Queen of Heaven, took it very badly. She always mourns the suffering of men. I think it comes from having seen her own Son die that terrible death all those years' ago.

Hail Holy Mother, I said, with my eyes lowered in reverence.

My child, you are troubled, she said.

Well, there was no denying that my heart was heavy. I allowed myself to look up, and saw all my pain mirrored in her gentle eyes. She looked at me for a moment, exploring the secret recesses of my heart with her all-seeing gaze.

You're right, Nazariah. We must do something about this terrible war, she said, reading my thoughts without my having to articulate them.

But it's written in the Plan, I said. We can't interfere with the Plan. 

She paused for a moment to reflect, her kind face creased with concern for the sons of men.

The Queen of Heaven looked tired. I knew that she'd been working the nightshift with Azrael. You see, down there on the battlefield, they always launch their attacks in the dark of night. That's when most of them die, and the Holy Virgin flies low over that terrible place with the Angel of Death to soften the blow. Before their mortal remains fall to the ground she gathers their souls in her arms and gently carries them home, clutching them to her breast. No human mother could care for them more tenderly at the hour of their passing than the Holy Virgin of Heaven.

Azrael, the old grump, feels a bit usurped, but even he knows better than to complain to the Management.

Maybe we can do something to remind them of their humanity without changing the Plan, she said, the hint of a smile spreading across her face.

And that was how it all began. Before long she'd come up with a plan, although she insisted that it was our plan.

Our strategy was very simple. We had to find something that would remind the men on the ground of all that was pure and happy in their world below, and of how it could be a better place. If we could just keep their belief in goodness alive, we knew that, little by little,  right would prevail and the light would once again conquer the darkness.

As the Christmas Angel, you are central to our strategy, she said. I blinked in the pure, white light of her Holiness, and went weak at the knees with the honour of it all. All mortals love Christmas and you must spread a little of your Christmas magic over the world below. Believe me, Nazariah, they want to feel your presence. A little nugget of hope buried deep in each man's heart wants to remember the Holy Birth. 

Now I have to 'fess up. I was far from convinced. Down below I could see them blowing the living daylights out of each other. I was a long way from believing that the odd twinkly light and a Christmas Carol or two would save the day, but the Holy Virgin was depending on me, and I wasn't about to let her down.

The first thing that I had to do that Christmas Eve was to place a few pine saplings in the way of the Saxon infantrymen. A tiny spark ignited in their hearts and with the addition of a few, small candles each sapling was soon transformed into a Tannenbaum, a glorious German Christmas tree.

And when the others saw them they couldn't help themselves:

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur
Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!


Their voices rose, deep and hearty, from the bowels of the earth where they were sheltering in their trenches.


And then an amazing thing happened. The Tommies picked up the melody, carried to them on the breath of the wind, across No Man's Land.

They stopped for a moment, ignoring their orders to fire, and listened to the joy in the German voices. It resonated with something, a memory buried deep in each man's soul, where they had kept it safe from the horrors of war. Maybe the Queen of Heaven herself stood by their sides, encouraging them to think happy thoughts of their mothers and sweethearts back across the sea. Whatever the way of it the Tommies paused, and then, before any further orders could come down the line, they answered their enemies in song:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How loyal are your needles,
You're green not only in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows,
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How loyal are your needles.  


The Germans in the opposite trenches were delighted.

Gerhard, a sandy-haired boy of nineteen from Leipzig, who was marked down in the Plan as a survivor,  reached along the floor of the German trench. Slowly, carefully, hardly daring to breathe, he lifted the Christmas tree that one of his comrades had brought forward from the rear that morning when they'd been posted to the front line. Slowly, slowly he balanced it on the parapet of the trench. It was a dangerous manoeuvre. The enemy snipers must have been able to guess exactly where he was. Gerhard hesitated for a moment as he'd steadied it in plain sight of the enemy, wondering whether the Tommies would try and blow his head off, but they didn't. Exhaling with relief and exhilaration he slumped back down to the safety of the floor again.

The other men in the trench gazed up at the little Christmas tree in amazement. With its twinkling candles and the little thread of ribbon from someone's Liebchen that they'd woven through its branches it looked more beautiful than anything they could remember.

After a moment of introspection Gerhard and his comrades registered that their enemies hadn't tried to destroy it. In fact no one was shooting at anything - or anyone - any more.

If you don't shoot, Tommy, we don't shoot, he shouted into the cold night air.

The stars twinkled overhead, and Gerhard gazed up into the night sky hoping and praying that his enemies would agree not to shoot and that they might all escape the horrors of war, even if it was only for one night.

It seemed like an eternity before the reply came chorussing back on the breeze.

OK, Fritz. We don't shoot, you don't shoot. Happy Christmas!

The others in his trench didn't understand. He was the only one who spoke English, but when he'd explained what the Tommies had said, a hearty cheer rose from the German trench, followed by a spontaneous chorus.

Stille nacht, heilige nacht

And before the Germans had reached the second line the Tommies were singing as though their lives depended on it:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm,  all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Well there was no stopping them after that point. A spark of joy and compassion was ignited in every human heart. Men clambered out of their trenches and embraced their enemies in No Man's Land. What little they had, they shared: smokes, seasonal tipples, dry socks and Christmas rations.

For one night it seemed as though we had worked a miracle, the Queen of Heaven and I. For one night we had stopped the war with nothing more than a few saplings, a couple of carols and the memories of Christmases past.

Of course, once they realised what we'd done the Boss and the Senior Management went ballistic. They said nothing to the Queen of Heaven. She was above reproach, but I got it in the neck for meddling with the course of human history. They told me that this was the purview of wiser and better minds than mine, and that I really ought to just mind my own business.

I listened to them. I said nothing in my defence. What I'd done was way above my pay-grade. But in the end, when all the fuss was over, the one thing no one could deny was that, even in the darkest, and bleakest of times, the true spirit of Christmas had endured.  So do me a favour: don't listen to the killjoys when they tell you that Christmas has lost its magic. That's nonsense. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

All the best for a very happy Christmas,

Bonny x






Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Homemade Christmas ...

Today we've been chilling, just kicking back and letting the world go by. It's lovely on a cold, frosty morning to stay in bed with nothing to worry about other than getting up in time to put the bins out. Bliss.

When we did eventually drag our weary bodies downstairs we took the Wonder Dog for a trot around Gunnersbury Park, one of our local parks. With the clear blue sky it was stunning. I love the distant skyline across this huge field. London seems like it's very far away, whereas in truth it's all around the park, which is an island of brilliant green in the middle of the great, grey city.


Emi and I were both surprised to bump into the headmaster of his Junior school out for a morning jog. Amazingly, given how many scarves and hats we were wearing, he recognised us, and shouted Hello!. It was weird seeing him out of context, and not wearing his usual smart suit. Emi was strangely thrilled. It sort of made his morning. Very weird.


We came home and  I started to put together some hampers of homemade goodies to give to friends for Christmas, whilst Emi settled down to a box-set of Asterix cartoons.

I started out with some white boxes that I'd bought in Ikea (Knarra boxes, if anyone wants to buy them). I've been looking for hamper boxes that were the right size to hold all the bits and pieces I've been making, and these ones seemed to fit the bill better than anything else I could find.


I padded the bottom with some bubble-wrap, and then covered it up with a few sheets of Christmassy red tissue paper.


I've also bought some festive tins for my Christmas cakes. The one in this hamper matches the recipient's kitchen china. Inside is one of my Boozy Be-jewelled Christmas Cakes.


Beside it, nestling on the tissue paper is a bumper bag of my Epsom Salt Bath Bombs, carefully labelled with my Handmade Labels.


Emi broke off from his cartoons to take a look at my labels. He'd not been around when I made any of my earlier batches of labels, and was very taken with my label-making machines.  And now, an hour or two later, I think I can safely say that he's got some of the best labelled Lego boxes in town.

We added some homemade Clementine and Cardamon Marmalade, a pot of Christmas Chutney and some  homemade Christmas Mincemeat


Then I had a sniff of the potpourri I'd made during the summer, and declared it ready to use. I decanted some into a plastic cake bag with a doily at the bottom to pretty it up a bit. Doesn't it look good?


And what's more my kitchen smells wonderful too: all summer roses and aromatic herbs. If you'd like to make some next year you can find my posts on how I made mine here:  Part 1 and Part 2. I'm really pleased with how the dark roses have held their colours. Lighter roses would have discoloured into unattractive browns and yellows, but these wonderful dark burgundy beauties have held their colour and still look rich and attractive. I also like the balance between whole heads, petals, geraniums, bay leaves and dried rosemary, which gives it a pleasing texture. 


Hopefully the friend for whom this little hamper of homemade delights is bound will like it. I just need to wrap it up in some cellophane wrap to keep it pristine for the journey from my house to hers.

All the best for now,


Bonny x

As shared on Creative Mondays

The very best birthday/ Christmas brownies ...

Another day, another birthday. December is just about the craziest month in my calendar. This month Mr B and I celebrate our wedding anniversary, Emi and Mr B have their birthdays and then there's Christmas. I seem to lurch from one event to the next, never properly prepared for any of them.

And today is Mr B's birthday. He's going to celebrate tonight with one of his favourite roast dinners followed by birthday brownies and ice cream. It may not sound desperately sophisticated, but I can think of few things that beat the unctuous pleasure of gooey chocolate brownies with the cold deliciousness of rich vanilla ice-cream.  Ideally I'd serve the brownies still warm from the oven and oozing dark chocolate, but we'll see how my timing goes as I've got a mountain of other things to get crammed in today.



As I've mentioned before these brownies are the perfect birthday party alternative to a birthday cake. All you need is a big pile of them neatly jacketed in cupcake papers and you're ready to go. I always get in a muddle trying to cut up one of those classical, circular cakes so that each of twenty hungry nine year-olds can have a roughly equal slice. It's so much easier to just produce a large pile of pick-one-up-and-go brownies.

Today I'm making a small batch as there will only be the four of us at tonight's celebrations - and the Wonder Dog is not allowed chocolate. This recipe will produce 16 brownies. I use a wibbly wobbly silicon baking tin that measures 20 cm x 23 cm and comes with marked lines for cutting equally sized brownies. I've got a couple of these, which I use to bake cakes as well. They were the first silicon baking trays that I bought. At first I was very nervous about using them, but now I think they're brilliant. The cakes never stick and they're really easy to get out when you're done.


Here's my recipe in case you'd like to have a go at them yourself:

Ingredients

190 g/ 6.5 oz butter
190 g/ 6.5 oz dark cooking chocolate
3 large eggs
1 dessertspoonful of vanilla essence
250 g / 9 oz caster sugar
115 g / 4 oz plain flour
100g/ 3.5 oz bake-stable chocolate chips

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180º C/ 360º F.

2.Melt the chocolate and butter together. I do this with two saucepans, one slightly bigger than the other. Put some water in the larger saucepan and bring to the boil. When it starts to steam put the butter and chocolate in the smaller saucepan and place it in the larger one so that they melt from the heat of the steam. This way you get enough heat to do the job, but not enough to burn the chocolate.You should melt them to get a uniform velvety mixture.





2. Beat the eggs with the sugar and vanilla essence.

3. Allow the chocolate/ butter mixture to cool a little for a few minutes and then add to the eggs/ sugar and vanilla mixture. If you add them too hot you risk a scrambled egg effect, which is not good. Fold in the flour and beat until the mixture has a uniform consistency. Add the chocolate chips and stir through.

4. Place the mixture in a greased baking tray that measures approximately 20 cm x 23 cm (8" x 9") and bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until it firms up on top and dries out to a slightly speckled appearance.

5. Cut into squares and enjoy with a nice cup of coffee or some ice cream if you want to be really indulgent.


Store in an air-tight tin, although in our house they don't get to rest for very long in storage.



All the best for now,

Bonny x

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Osterley Park's Christmas Bling ...

This morning dawned cold and frosty with clear skies and December sunshine: a perfect winter's day.

Emi and I headed out to Osterley Park to make the most of the good weather. I'd heard that they'd got all their Christmas decorations up and were opening the doors to let us in for a look at their Christmas bling.

I've written about Osterley before (The Jersey paintings return to Osterley Park and Bluebells in Osterley Park). It's a wonderful National Trust property just down the road from where we live, and is one of our favourite haunts for walking the Wonder Dog. When we want some fresh air and can't think where to go this is usually where we end up.


We had to leave the Wonder Dog behind as we were going inside, so we were able to stop and watch the ducks for a while. The Wonder Dog does not approve of ducks, and we normally have to walk quickly on by so as not to upset them with his barking.


It's hard to believe that this place is in Greater London. You can just about make out the aeroplane on its descent to nearby Heathrow.


As you walk around the estate you sometimes hear the roar of distant traffic, but otherwise it's incredibly peaceful. It's a great spot to come and enjoy Mother Nature's seasonal best. For those of us who live in the city it's easy to miss the passing seasons, but a quick trip out here soon puts us in touch with the natural world.


I like to sit on these chairs, with the sun on my face listening to the birds.


I love the majestic sweep of the branches of this Cedar of Lebanon that trail down to the water's edge. This old chap's got to be my ultimate Christmas tree.


Another old friend of mine lives on the opposite side of the house. He's an oriental plane tree who's been there since about 1755.


 They think that he originally came from Iran or Turkey. Isn't he amazing? His branches grow in strange ways, almost like the arms of a monkey who leans on his knuckles as he walks along.


Can you see little Emi standing amidst the branches to give some sense of perspective? If this old tree could talk, his tales would be well worth listening to.

The rest of the gardens were looking neat, but at this time of the year they owe their splendour to the beautiful rise and sweep of the trees.


Here and there we found the odd little reindeer, flexing his muscles and gearing up for the Big Night.


The gardeners had given each one a name. The chap above was called Blixen. Emi had a great time running from one to the next discovering their names and shouting them out into the cold air for everyone else's benefit.

Finally we remembered what we'd come for and headed inside.

In the long gallery, one of the surviving Tudor parts of the house, we found the most magnificent tree. Doesn't it look grand?


Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, came to visit Osterley on at least two occasions. I like to imagine her striding energetically up and down in here on rainy days with her courtiers fluttering after her like great black crows in a newly ploughed field.

It's a cracking room with exquisite paintings and objets d'art dotted around.


One of the many, many things that I love about this place is the staff who volunteer to help. They're all so enthusiastic about the place. This morning many of them had dressed in stunning period costumes. And without exception they were happy to chat about the place and answer Emi's questions.

Emi had a game of Devil Among the Tailors with a lovely young man who was bewigged (18th century style) and volunteering as a guide. The object of the game is to send the spinning top whizzing around the table to knock over as many skittles as possible. Each skittle has a number value and you have to take your aim with a view to hitting as many of the high-value skittles as possible. It's a game of skill and strategy that was once popular in London's many public houses.


Devil Among the Tailors is a name that was given to the game of table skittles after a group of tailors kicked up a rumpus outside a London theatre where they were staging a play called The Tailors: a Tragedy for Warm Weather. The play satirised the London tailors, and they took umbrage at the way in which they were being portrayed. They showed up en masse on 15th August, 1805 and started to riot. The special constables of the day were helpless against the numbers of angry tailors brandishing scissors and whatever else they had to hand. The Life Guards were called in and they did the job of dispersing the rioters so effectively that they were compared to a ball ploughing through the skittles.  And ever after the game of table skittles was known to Londoners as Devil Among the Tailors. 

Having made some Dried Orange Slice and Cinnamon Stick Christmas tree decorations I was interested to see how they had used dried fruit to make decorations too. In the Long Gallery they'd brought in lots of standard bay trees, which looked amazing with slices of dried apple and orange and whole dried clementines and limes: so many ideas for next year ... .


In the hallway they had a wishing tree, where Emi recorded his Christmas wish on a special label. Here he is with another of the lovely volunteer guides, writing it out carefully in his very best handwriting. 


And then he tied it to the tree along with all the other children's Christmas wishes. It reminded me a little of Buddhist Temples I've visited in the Far East where people write out prayers and tie them to trees in the Temple gardens. Our guide told us that this was once an authentic English tradition. I've never heard of it before, but as I think it's rather charming, it's one I'd be happy to adopt. 


This wonderful table centrepiece caught my eye. Back in the day the pineapple on top was probably worth more than they paid the cook in a year. 


Or how about this dumb waiter, groaning under the weight of its seasonal delights?


And every mantlepiece seemed to sport its own festive garlands and decorations.


Down in the kitchens they were making griddle cakes and we had a go at stirring the Christmas pudding. The cosy warmth from the old range cooker and the smell of Christmas spices were magical. 

We came away with grand plans for further embellishments to our own modest decorations at home. Emi has spent a good part of the afternoon working on his paper chains. If you're in the London area and you need something to reboot your Christmas mojo you might like to consider a trip out to Osterley Park. You can find their website here: Osterley Park.

All the best for now,

Bonny x
As shared on image-in-ing


Friday, 12 December 2014

Birthday Boy ...

Yesterday was my little boy's birthday. He's just turned nine. Nine! His last year in single digits. Where has the time gone to? It seems as though it were only yesterday when he arrived in this world, and at the same time it seems like a lifetime ago since I became a mum.



Yesterday nine years' ago, on the morning of his birth, the good folk of Ealing were woken from their sleep by a huge explosion at the Buncefield oil storage depot down the road in Hemel Hempstead. They say that the explosion was heard clearly by people in Belgium and France. It made a phenomenal noise. I remember it very clearly: I was in the maternity ward in Ealing hospital, feeling the onset of my labour pains. I was with a group of other expectant mums and we were all curious to know what had happened, but none of us had too much emotional energy to spare on fretting about who might have been affected, or what might have happened. Sirens wailed, and a nice nurse told us there had been an explosion. I remember lying there thinking that my baby and I should at least be safe in the hospital. Even in the darkest days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland the people with bombs hadn't blown up the hospitals.


Then twelve hours' later my little bundle of joy arrived, and I knew immediately that my world had just become a better place. I have never done drugs, but I don't think any chemical stimulant could ever compete with the high, that feeling of complete and utter elation that followed the birth of my first and only child. All the pain of the delivery ward was forgotten in an instant, and the only thing that I could think about was this precious new life that I held in my arms. 


Yesterday was also Emi's last day of school. They ended at midday with a final assembly at which everyone sang Christmas carols and cheered like crazy kids about the House Cup (an unprecedented three-way draw).


After a birthday lunch we went for a walk in Walpole Park, our local park here in Ealing. It was freezing, and I do mean proper Siberian wind-chilled freezing. A weak sun hung at an awkward angle in the sky blinding everyone who walked into it.


It was bleak. There weren't many people there who didn't need to be there. Lots of folk cut through the park to get from one part of Ealing to another. It's a bit of a thoroughfare. I often walk through it with the Wonder Dog when I'm picking Emi up from school.  A bit of green space is always a welcome change from the bustling streets.

We saw this lady (photo below) struggling home with her dog, her bike and her newly-purchased Christmas tree. I hope she had a lovely time decorating it at home in the warm embrace of a blazing fire.


In the evening Emi had an invitation to another party, and today he's been invited out to lunch by his Tiá Jenny. Jenny is one of my dearest and closest friends, who's an honorary auntie. She's taking him into town for a proper grown-up lunch, and then they're going to see the Christmas lights. He's loving the importance of having a lunch-date!


All the best for a lovely weekend,

Bonny x
As shared on Friday Finds